#CoveringCOVID: 6 recommendations for combating disinformation

by Julie Posetti and Alice Matthews
Mar 27, 2020 in COVID-19 Reporting
Working at computers

This article is part of our online coverage of reporting on COVID-19. To see more resources, click here

Journalism's role in combating disinformation has never been more critical. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it what the World Health Organization (WHO) calls a massive 'infodemic' — a potentially deadly explosion of disinformation globally.

People around the world have already died because of mis/disinformation connected to false or unproven COVID-19 treatments. Disinformation purveyors are sharing these falsehoods through viral memes, chain messaging on closed apps and even by ill-informed politicians during realtime press conferences. 

One of the most dangerous potential consequences of the global disinformation crisis — well-entrenched before the COVID-19 pandemic — is the prospect of audiences downgrading their trust in all information because they’re finding it harder to discern facts from falsehoods, legitimate publications from fraudulent ones, and hyper-partisan content from critical independent journalism. 

[Read more: Past health crises can inform reporting on COVID-19]


The result? The undermining of public health, the destabilization of democratic processes, and increasing threats to the sustainability of independent journalism.

All of journalism has a role to play as a bulwark against some of these Age of Disinformation effects — from news to documentary, from radio to print, from specialist to general, from legacy to start-up, from interactive to investigative. 

We’re all targets of disinformation agents, and we all have a role in fighting back.

Disinformation purveyors seek out the most vulnerable aspects of the information ecosystem — from small publications with poorly trained staff and limited resources, to those with weak defenses, suffering from complacency and niche, impressionable audiences. 

That’s why it’s vital that editors, publishers and reporters are aware of the growing sophistication of disinformation tactics, including fraudulent sources, faux think tanks, inauthentic social media accounts, polluted datasets, and fake publications. It’s essential to reinforce the role of verification and fact-checking, multi-sourcing, and digital media literacy for all journalists.

Research we published this week for a Canadian Government-funded project on magazines and disinformation offers six key recommendations which can help all publishers insulate against disinformation and defend credible journalism.  

1. Promote understanding of the causes and consequences of the Disinformation Age, while ensuring fact-checking and verification skills  work in a digital world.  

The problem: The digital age requires more sophisticated skills to combat misinformation and disinformation. 

Effective countermeasures:

  • Prioritize knowledge-sharing and training designed to ensure research and verification skills on editorial teams are fit for the digital age (i.e. social media verification techniques).
  • Develop a more sophisticated understanding of the causes and impacts of the present disinformation crisis on journalism, and the public’s right to know — a right grounded in international human rights law.
  • Develop specialized disinformation beats relevant to your publication’s focus. 
  • Fill the gaps. Publications, especially niche ones, can help fight disinformation preemptively, simply by being aware of information gaps and working to fill them with powerful and engaging narratives that could help debunk falsehoods and promote credible, verifiable information.

Resources to help you implement this recommendation:

[Read more: Key quotes from a discussion with WHO envoy Dr. Samba Sow on COVID-19]

2. Bring your audiences with you: Truth, trust and collaborative combat

The problem: Increasingly, the conflation of fact and fiction is undermining public trust in all information, enabling easier manipulation of public opinion by nefarious actors. Publishers with niche audiences are a particularly desirable target for disinformation purveyors. 

Effective countermeasures:

  • Leverage specialist knowledge. According to a Canadian Journalism Foundation survey, 83% of respondents were most worried about disinformation that might compromise their health by spreading incorrect information about medical risks and benefits. This offers opportunities for reporting on these themes that leverages specialists to aid debunking. It also points to emerging opportunities for publishers in the health and wellbeing space that offer reliable, evidence-based, trustworthy reporting.
  • Mobilize your audiences and strengthen loyalty through membership or subscriber programs and events exploring the causes and impacts of the disinformation crisis.
  • Consider collaborative reporting projects that leverage the collective expertise and resources of others, and even audiences with specialist knowledge.

Resources to help you implement this recommendation:

3. Practice transparency and accountability

The problem: The lines between fact, entertainment, advertising, fabrication and fiction are increasingly blurred, undermining trust in journalism.

Effective countermeasures:

  • Reveal reporting processes by taking your audiences behind the scenes.
  • Clearly delineate between advertorial, sponsored and native content. Do not be tempted to blur the lines for short-lived profit.
  • Interrogate your advertisers’ methods to avoid tainting by association.

Resources to help you implement this recommendation:

Learn from this case study about a Teen Vogue advertorial about Facebook that “stunk of sponsored content.” It initially ran with no byline or disclaimer, and it backfired spectacularly.

4. Unite against divisive forces

The problem: Journalism is competitive, but industry unity and professional collaboration are critical to combating the global disinformation crisis. Going up against disinformation alone will not work. This is partly because the disinformation agents are themselves well-organized and highly collaborative.

Effective countermeasures:

  • Stay “united and mobilized” for battle, which L'actualité Editor Charles Grandmont told us was the most important thing to tackle the problem.
  • Pool and share resources to counter disinformation (training, knowledge, forensic verification tools, etc.) between publications wherever possible.
  • Experiment with collaborative investigations.
  • Consider aggregating legal resources.
  • Consolidate lobbying efforts.
  • Share with industry colleagues your experiences of being targeted and the methods you’re using to try to fight back to allow others to learn from your mistakes as well as your successes.
  • Make a particular effort to support very small publishers who have limited capacity to engage with the problem but need to be strong links in the credible information chain.

Resources to help you implement this recommendation:

5. You are not immune from online violence: Be prepared for security threats and safety risks

The problem: Online violence against journalists is now a well-documented feature of orchestrated disinformation campaigns and a tool used more broadly to chill critical journalism. Disinformation agents have learned that directly attacking journalists online can aid their attempts to seed doubt, confusion and fear. Female journalists and those reporting on disinformation are  being disproportionately targeted. The violence can manifest in a variety of ways — gendered harassment and abuse, threats of sexual and physical violence, digital security attacks including doxxing, surveillance and more.

Effective countermeasures:

  • Have a plan in place to deal with any threats made against staff and contributors, including notifying the police and increasing security on and offline (because these threats do not remain in the digital world).
  • Seek and provide psychological support in the weeks and months following an attack.
  • Ensure journalists — including freelancers — report any threats to the editor. 
  • Remind staff of the risks of posting personal information online.
  • Provide training and resources focused on integrated digital, physical and psychological safety, to enable proactive self-defense.

Resources to help you implement this recommendation:

6. Don’t act like an ostrich or you risk being a sitting duck target for disinformation agents

The problem: Believing your publication is too niche, or your audience too small to be a target, or limiting your understanding of the disinformation crisis to the role of foreign election meddlers and bots makes you an easier target.  

Effective countermeasures: All of those outlined above.

Julie Posetti is ICFJ's Global Director of Research. Alice Matthews is host of The Feed, an Australian news, current affairs, and satire television series.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via CoWomen.